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Lester rises to the occasion

Lester rises to the occasion

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BOSTON -- Jon Lester blocked it all out.

All the talk about "filling in" for Josh Beckett as the Red Sox's de facto postseason ace.

All the buzz about getting the American League Division Series off to a good start in Game 1 on Wednesday night.

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All the concern about preventing a potentially dangerous trip to Anaheim for a decisive Game 5 by nailing the series down in Game 4 at Fenway Park.

"It doesn't matter what the game or the series is," Lester said matter-of-factly after the Red Sox beat the Angels, 3-2, to close the ALDS in four games. "You try to give the team a quality start and do the best you can and, hopefully, come out on top."

Lester came out on top in Game 1, and the importance of his seven scoreless innings in Game 4 on Monday night can't be overstated, even if they ultimately resulted in a no-decision. Lester did exactly what he set out to do on a night in which an AL Championship Series berth was up for grabs: He stayed focused on the task at hand and strung up zero after zero on the scoreboard.

Plenty of pitchers utter the cliches about ignoring the circumstances and sticking to their routine. But the fact that the 24-year-old Lester actually made it happen worked out well for the Red Sox in this series and bodes well for the team going forward.

"[You have to have] the mental ability to focus on executing one pitch at a time," Lester said, "until the game is over or they take the ball out of your hand."

The Red Sox took the ball out of Lester's hand after he had thrown 109 pitches and allowed just four singles with two walks and four strikeouts to leave with a 2-0 lead.

And in the ALCS against the Rays, Boston will be putting the ball back in Lester's hand knowing he has an ability to rise to the October occasion that belies his youth.

"Jon has been rising to the occasion throughout the course of the season," pitching coach John Farrell said. "He's matured as a person, as a pitcher. Warming up tonight, there was no difference in his routine. Everybody knew what the significance of tonight was. You take a supreme, talented athlete and combine that with a mental approach that is very stable, and he did one heck of a job. And we needed it tonight."

As Farrell said, Lester, who battled lymphoma to make an emotional return to the Majors last season, has been giving the Red Sox what they need all year. He was 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA in 33 starts.

But while he had his first taste of the postseason a year ago, notching the victory in the World Series clincher against the Rockies, it was questionable whether he'd be able to fill the shoes of Beckett in the No. 1 starter's role.

With a 0.00 ERA in 14 innings pitched over two starts, Lester put any doubts to rest.

"He was hitting the corners all series," Angels first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "I faced him six times, and I don't think he pitched me in the middle third of the plate in six at-bats. He's going to be a superstar."

After these two performances and a no-hitter earlier this season against the Royals, perhaps Lester has already reached that lofty point.

"This kid is one of the best pitchers in the league right now," manager Terry Francona said. "If we're going to get where we want to go, he'll be a huge part of that, as he already has been."

Count Lester in.

"My mind-set is good," he said. "My focus is good."

And his results are even better.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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